The sun set on Brexit Britain a long time ago
Some believe that the decision to leave the European Union was driven by nostalgia for a long-lost empire. Whether this is true or not, the UK needs to face up to the realities of its colonial past
Last weekend, while on a visit to the International Slavery Museum in the northern English city of Liverpool, I had a rare experience in urban life: a spontaneous conversation with a stranger. She was a middle-aged, Black-British schoolteacher, who overheard my companion and I – two white Brits – discussing how little we had learned at school about the brutal realities of the British empire.
I said that I felt lucky to have gone to a multicultural, liberal state school in London in the 1990s, where the teachers had made some kind of effort. In my history classes we had studied Mahatma Gandhi and Jomo Kenyatta, and the struggles for independence in India and Kenya. But even this was limited – I was taught nothing about the slave trade – and, more to the point, pretty unusual.
She replied, comparing the way that British history curriculums whitewash the country’s past with the efforts of the German state to ensure that the history of Nazism and the Holocaust are embedded in collective memory, via museums, memorials and political discussion.
In Britain, it is entirely possible to reach adulthood with no real knowledge of chattel slavery or the racist atrocities carried out by the nation during its purportedly “civilising” missions to foreign lands. In the British national imagination, the German motto “Never Forget” becomes “Forget what?”
As the wave of Brexit-driven chaos, confusion and political infighting continues to sweep through British politics, debate has been rumbling about what precisely drove the Leave vote. To the surprise of the UK media and political establishment, 17.4 million people – or 51.9 per cent – opted to part ways with the European Union in June 2016. The reasons usually cited are a hostility to EU laws and a desire for British sovereignty, rising poverty and general malaise in post-industrial regions, worsened by austerity, and a growing level of animosity towards migrants.
Another idea that has gained an increasing amount of traction lately is rather more existential: that the Brexit vote was fuelled by a collective sense of loss and imperial nostalgia. Years before the referendum, the writer and historian Paul Gilroy described a similar set of feelings as “postcolonial melancholia”.
What is certain is Britain’s collective ignorance about the grim realities of the imperial project
This is now the subject of a controversial book by Oxford academics Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson. In Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, they argue that the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU is motivated by a confrontation with its own “shocking, Dorian Gray-like deteriorated image” – a nation stuck in the past, beset by inequality and infrastructural decline, lashing out at a world that it believes has left it behind, rather than doing the difficult work of resolving its own problems.
Sure enough, Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper, the right-wing tabloid The Sun, marked the day of the 2016 referendum with a front-page headline reading “Independence Day: Britain’s Resurgence”, accompanied by a graphic of a dazzling orb rising over a world with the British Isles at its centre, and the European stars shooting away from them.
Consciously or otherwise, this image nodded to a popular saying from Victorian times: “The sun never sets on the British empire”. But, in the 20th century, it finally did, as long-subjugated nations freed themselves from British rule. This, many believe, prompted mass identity crisis and a deep-rooted feeling of being a once-mighty power that had lost its place in the world.
Then, in 2016, came the opportunity for a reassertion of British exceptionalism. The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole summed up the feelings of many Remain voters, lamenting that Brexit was motivated by Leavers’ perceptions of the country’s “vertiginous fall from ‘heart of empire’ to ‘occupied colony’”, and adding that “in the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers.”
Not everyone is on board with this idea. The conservative blogger Alex King called it a “tired fantasy”, while the Remain-voting journalist Robert Saunders cautioned in Prospect magazine that it was a lazy projection by his liberal peers, without any significant evidence. “We should be wary of arguments that play so directly to our own political preferences,” he wrote.
Saunders is right that empirical evidence of this self-sabotaging longing for empire is hard to come by. Then again, the same goes for most hypotheses about the political motives of millions of people.
What is more certain about Britain’s relationship with its past is the collective ignorance about the grim realities of the imperial project. When asked about their nation’s colonial history by the polling company YouGov in January 2016, the British public’s response was resoundingly positive: 44 per cent said they were proud of the empire, while only 23 per cent expressed any regret or shame.
Whatever happens with the wearying machinations of Brexit in the coming weeks, that is a damning indictment of the British education system, and the inadequacy of our national conversation. Inside or outside of the EU, that needs to change, and fast.
Updated: March 20, 2019 05:03 PM